Exploring Abroad Series: Epic Adventure on El Camino de Santiago, Spain
World traveler extraordinaire and mommy to her own New York City-dwelling Wike Baby, Swati reflects and relives one of the best decisions she's ever made: to hike the Camino, an epic once-in-a-lifetime adventure.
It all comes back to my love for the Mighty Ducks and Coach Bombay aka Emilio Estevez – he had me at “Quack.” One night, my husband and I were searching for something to watch on Netflix, and we came across a movie called The Way starring none other than Emilio Estevez – when was the last time we saw him in a movie (not counting watching my Mighty Ducks collector’s edition box set)? We were in! After watching, I wondered if the movie was based on a real hike, and low and behold, a quick Google search revealed that it was! And that is the moment I decided to hike the Camino.
So here’s what you need to know to become of pilgrim on the Camino de Santiago (The Way of St. James). There are multiple routes, but they all end at the tomb of St. James – we’ll get to him in a moment. The most popular route, and the one we decided on, is the Camino Frances. It starts in St. Jean-Pied-du-Port in southern France, runs across northern Spain, and ends in Santiago de Compostela in the far northwest of Spain – although some choose to go on to Finisterre. It stretches approximately 500 miles, so yes, this means if you finish, you will officially earn the right to rock out to The Proclaimer’s “I Would Walk 500 Miles.” St. Jean-Pied-du-Port is completely lovely, and we arrived there the day before starting the hike, which gave us a chance to explore and enjoy a delicious dinner and house-made cider that my husband still thinks about longingly. This also gave us ample time to get last minute supplies, our Camino “passports,” a document you’ll get stamped along the way as proof that you completed the hike, so that you may obtain your official certificate at the end, and a scallop shell to attach to your backpack to signal you are a pilgrim on The Way – will get back to this in a moment too.
Map from https://caspin.com/el-camino-de-santiago/
In regards to the difficulty and safety of the trail, even though Emilio Estevez’s character dies while hiking it (don’t worry – this isn’t really a spoiler), we quickly learned the hike is in fact a very safe one. The hike is arduous mostly because of the distance and time commitment required, typically around 30 to 35 days, and it’s a good idea to build in a few extra days in case you need a break for blisters, bad weather, or extra time to explore in any of the towns. We met one woman who hikes a different part of the trail for 1 week every year, with plans to eventually complete it, which is a nice option for those who can’t do the entire trail in one trip. My husband and I had only 3 weeks so we had to bypass one part of the trail by train, so there are options if you’re limited on time. There are a few more physically challenging segments, particularly the first day’s journey from St. Jean-Pied-du-Port to Roncesvalles -- so don’t worry if you’re wondering what you were thinking when you decided to do this after that first day. There are some sections of the hike that are absolutely breathtaking and others that feel really monotonous, as you can see from our pictures. Along the way, rather than camping outside, most people stay in “albergues” or hostels, variable in size and amenities, but a fun way to meet other hikers. You can also choose to treat yo’ self periodically in some of the bigger towns with B&Bs and hotels, which feels undeniably amazing after weeks of shared bathrooms and snoring. In the towns, you’ll find cafes and restaurants, many of which have wi-fi (my husband still makes fun of me for asking “Que es el codigo?” on the daily). Also, if you ever need a break from carrying your backpack, there are relatively inexpensive pick up/drop off backpack services you can use, so you can still enjoy the hike but without the extra weight that day.
History of the Pilgrimage
So who is St. James? James the Apostle traveled across northern Spain to spread the word of God, but was ultimately captured and executed. He wasn’t allowed to be buried, but his disciples stole his corpse and escaped to Galicia by boat. Many years later, after a hermit saw strange lights in a forest and notified the local bishop, the bishop followed a star to find St. James’ remains. Spain’s king ordered a chapel be built at the site, and the place became known as Campus Stellae, or “field of the star” a name that may have morphed into Compostela, hence Santiago de Compostela, which translates to Saint James of the Field of Stars, although there is controversy surrounding the true etymology of the name.
Legend has it that as the boat carrying St. James’s corpse came into the coast, a horseback rider fell into the water, but St. James miraculously saved him. When he emerged from the water, he and his horse were covered in scallop shells, but there’s many other theories regarding the significance of the scallop shell to the Camino. In the past, some hiked the Camino as a fertility pilgrimage, and the scallop shell may have been a pagan symbol of fertility. For pilgrims who were completing the hike as penance, the shell may have served as proof of completing the journey. More practically speaking, the shell may have been used to collect water and food. Metaphorically, the scallop shell’s many lines may represent all the different routes we can take in life and on the Camino, all ending in the same place. Today, the scallop shell is the iconic symbol of the Camino, marking the trail and always pointing you in the right direction.
Since the hike ends at the tomb of St. James, you may be wondering if most hikers complete the journey for religious reasons. For some, the Camino is a religious pilgrimage, but for most we met along the way, it was more of a cultural and spiritual experience or a goal to accomplish. One of the best things about the Camino is meeting people from all across the world and age spectrum, from just graduated 20-somethings trying to figure out what to do with the rest of their lives to retired 70-somethings trying to figure out what to do with the rest of their lives. One of my favorite memories is a night when my husband and I, a couple of Americans, made Mexican dinner with a heart-on-her-sleeve Latvian, a skeptical Israeli, and a sensible German. Side note: the heart-on-her-sleeve Latvian and skeptical Israeli met on the Camino and are now married, and if you’re reading this, I hope you’ll forgive my oversimplification of the wonderful people you are! :-)
I will say I can only recall seeing one family with 2 young kids on the trail, and no one looked particularly happy about it - I would not recommend it. However, we did meet a couple who decided to do the hike with their adult son and his girlfriend, and it seemed like a really nice way to spend time together as a family, while still permitting for personal time. What’s nice about the Camino is that for the most part, it’s hard to get lost, and it’s totally fine to separate and hike on your own for stretches during a day of hiking if you want to have some time for yourself. Most of the people we met started the hike alone, but met people along the way and started hiking together with these new found friends. In fact, I think some people thought it was strange that my husband and I were doing the hike together. For us it felt like such a special thing that we were able to do together, and it has been so nice to be able to share these memories.
In terms of what to bring, here’s a great blog with a detailed packing list – I’d emphasize the importance of breaking in your hiking boots to prevent blisters, and just add clothespins to the list.
We didn’t find that a guidebook was necessary, but this is a nice lightweight map book we used.
To be fair, there were many days when I felt incredibly blessed to have the opportunity to hike the Camino, some days I felt restless, and a few I was almost in tears ready to go home... but ultimately, hiking the Camino was one of the best travel experiences I’ve ever had. Now, every spring, my husband and I rewatch The Way, not only for my undying love for Emilio, but because it actually does a nice job of capturing what the hike feels like - minus the Emilio Estevez dying part. Aside from writing this blog, it’s been our way of reliving a really special time in our lives, that I hope we get to do again someday, perhaps with our own grown children, and I hope that this blog has convinced you to consider it too! Buen Camino!
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Check out the rest of our Exploring Abroad Series HERE, and share your own adventures on our Facebook page or by tagging @wikebaby on Instagram!